26 Sep 2013

The Universal Reformer

re·form [riˈfôrm]

To improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects; put into a better form or condition.

When Joseph Pilates (1883-1967) created his method of exercise, he was on the humble mission to reform the world, one body at a time. Following a lifetime of studying the human body and movement, he knew that if we stop moving the way we are supposed to, we stop functioning the way we are supposed to. Of course he was not alone in recognizing the issue – but his attempt at a solution was rather unique.

Pilates developed an exercise system that reconnects us to natural human movement as a means to undo the damage caused by sedentary lifestyles. Additionally, he engineered furniture to make sure we can treat our bodies better during non-moving times. While his posture-improving chairs and beds never found their way into the mainstream, his exercise apparatus have become an inseparable aspect of his work, and can be found in any part of the world today. The centerpiece of his inventions and the first apparatus he developed was called “The Universal Reformer”.

While many think of “Pilates” as exercises performed on a Mat, his knack for reinventing gymnastic apparatus was what truly set him apart from other physical culturists at the time.

The Reformer was first patented in Germany in 1924, its first model a very simplistic version of the apparatus we know today: an elevated bed-like structure with a sliding platform that can be moved along tracks by pressing the feet against a kickstand. Weights were added to create resistance, but compared to the modern Reformer we know today, this first model had no metal springs, leather straps, or even padding on the apparatus. The Reformer remained at the center of Pilates’ method and studio, and has undergone constant evolution and refinement.

In an interview from 1946 he discloses the purpose of the apparatus. He explains: “Of course you can exercise without machines. But it’s not as efficient – would take longer. With them, three or four hours work a week is enough.”

Research backs Joseph up in his assumption that moving with an external load can make a movement practice more efficient. New movement patterns become habitual faster when performed under load—the resistance encourages a quicker adaptation in the neuromuscular system.

In the same interview, he further implies that one of the many purposes of his apparatus was to provide tactile feedback, much like a teacher’s hand:

“I invented all these machines. I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movement in just the right way so those long inner muscles really have to work against it. That is why you can concentrate on movement.”

Joseph recognized that the constant resistance provided by the springs makes for improved proprioceptive feedback, keeps the full body alert and working in all portions of movement. Springs proved to be a perfect complement to Pilates’ bodywork for they only provide as much load as the practitioner is able to resist against, making the work with springs an interactive and dynamic experience. This ultimately allows the Reformer to become a teacher in its own merit, because it teaches the desired movement quality we look for in a Pilates practice: full-bodied effort as well as length, lift, and opposition through the spine, joints, and extremities.

Springs also aid in focusing the practitioners mind. On the Reformer, the springs will quickly remind you—with a bang if necessary—that they are constantly engaged. Never a dull moment.

So, to sum it all up: “The Universal Reformer” reforms a body by providing it with a clear trajectory to move within – hence increasing movement efficiency – as well as closing the kinetic chain for improved proprioceptive feedback, and adding load and resistance to the movement for accelerated neural adaptation.

Or, simply put: it makes you move better. Staying with the definition given in the introduction of this article, the Reformer moves along organically with the body, correcting and removing erroneous movement patterns. By simply putting the body into a better position to move from, and then supporting and resisting it along the way, it ultimately brings the body into a better form and condition, too.

For the teacher to fully benefit from the amazing properties of this apparatus, it is incredibly important to understand its engineering and how the dimensions of the Reformer relate to human movement. But most importantly, the good teacher is able to moderate the neural dialogue the body enters with the apparatus; from the second the toes touch the foot bar – until the universally reformed body steps off.

Adapted from an article originally written for the Pilates Nerd